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You Got The Stuff, Right?
by Jon Schuller

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By now you've no doubt noticed how much I love movies. Some of my earliest childhood memories were centered on movies, either in my local movie theatre or on television. I watched many of the old movie serials as they were scaled back to fit the small screen in our apartment in New Jersey. But I also have other loves that have held my attention all these years: automobiles and aviation. Whenever possible I go to car shows in and around Charlotte or air shows and museums at North Carolina airports. Chris and I went to the memorable 100th anniversary celebration of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk in 2003. So it's sort of natural I would love movies about airplanes and aviation exploits. There are approximately 800 films worldwide cataloguing the evolution of human flight, showing flying machines from the Wright Flyer up to today's supersonic planes. The first film to win the Oscar for Best picture was Wings released in 1927. One film, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, takes the historical aspects of flight from manned aircraft to manned spacecraft: The Right Stuff.

In about 60 years humans learned to fly in powered aircraft and eventually mastered how to fly in outer space. That isn't a long time when compared to all the centuries when man only dreamed of being a bird and leaving the Earth's grip. As aircraft became more powerful they flew higher and faster than the generations before. To control such power took (and still does) amazing strengths and skills. The men and women who tested the newest aviation developments took their lives in their hands. Many did not survive as the eternal races for speed, distance and height pushed designs to the limits. The Wright Brothers designed the first wind tunnel to test and perfect their wing designs; they left nothing to chance as they became the first men to truly control their aircraft and sustain powered flight. When the film begins we are witnesses to the secret test flights the United States was conducting to break the speed of sound.

We had just begun testing jet aircraft as the Second World War ended. The German Luftwaffe had actually put a true twin-engine jet fighter (the ME-262) into active service in 1944; when they were shot down the Air Force examined them closely, especially the engines. R.A.F. Captain Frank Whittle had invented a true jet engine in the 1930's but the R.A.F. gave
it a lukewarm reception as WWII was about to begin and production of propeller-driven Spitfires and Hurricanes was the top priority. Whittle also showed his invention to the Germans who responded quite differently. By the time the war was over the United States had an operational jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80, in service. Just a scant 2 years later in 1947 Captain Chuck Yeager, a decorated WWII air ace, breaks the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 he named Glamorous Glennis after his wife. The results were kept secret as America did not want anyone, especially the Russians, to know how far we'd come in aircraft development. Yeager's staggering achievement went virtually unrecorded for many years. Dropped from a B-29 bomber the X-1 streaks upward into the atmosphere while Yeager struggles to control the plane's violent shaking as it approaches Mach 1 (761 mph). Once past the "barrier" the flight smooths out and control is easier. The not-heard-before "sonic boom" scares the men on the ground as they believe the plane has exploded or crashed. Safely back on earth Yeager becomes an unknown hero. In 1952 a British film, Breaking The Sound Barrier, is released and creates a new myth that the English, inventors of the jet engine have once again done something spectacular in aviation.

The Right Stuff moves on to 1953 where we see the best test pilots at Muroc Airbase (today it's Edwards Air Force Base) constantly competing with each other to break old records and set new ones just as quickly. Yeager competes with Scott Crossfield (who will eventually break the speed and altitude records in the rocket-powered X-15 going 4520 mph and 62 miles high). The pilots who will become the original seven Mercury Astronauts are among those stationed there. The real Chuck Yeager has a cameo role in the film.

In October, 1957 Russia launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into outer space. America's leaders get this unexpected wake-up call and realize there's a "space race" about to begin. Which nation will launch a man into outer space becomes a national priority. Along with faster jet planes the United States had been frantically working on launching rockets into outer space but with little or no success as rockets frequently exploded on the launching pads. Putting a manned space capsule on top of one these rockets was considered a suicide mission by many of the test pilots at
Edwards, although they risked their lives every time they flew. Picking pilots to qualify as astronauts led the government to the "prime" pilots at Edwards. Eventually they chose Capt. Alan Shepard, USN (Scott Glenn)
Col. John Glenn, USMC (Ed Harris)
Capt. Gordon Cooper, USAF (Dennis Quaid)
Capt. Gus Grissom, USAF (Fred Ward)
Capt. Deke Slayton, USAF (Scott Paulin)
Scott Carpenter, USN (Charles Frank)
and Wally Schirra, USN (Lance Henriksen).
They didn't include Chuck Yeager who didn't have a college degree, but the other pilots really thought he was the best there was. Yeager was completely fearless and always got the assignments for higher and faster. The film portrays him as a regular guy with extraordinary skills.

The Mercury Seven Astronauts are put through the most rigorous physical and mental testing imaginable, pushing them to their endurance limits, much further than their previous pilot training and flying experiences had ever been. Men about to fly in outer space was a completely unknown territory for these daredevils, although their knowledge of the effects of supersonic (or near-supersonic) flight helped them. Their own individual styles became clear as the weeks and months of training progressed; undoubtedly, no matter which one would be chosen as the first to fly, their skills and fearlessness united them as a team and as friends. Many, like John Glenn, had flown missions in combat (Korea for Glenn) and those daily dangers and uncertainties prepared them for their new assignments. We get to see their personal lives too as their wives must once again endure what has become a routine way of life for these women; they too must watch and wait for their pilot-husbands to venture forth into the sky and hope their men will return safe and sound when the job is done. Just like the wives of policemen and firemen and all others who daily risk their lives the astronauts' wives must sit and wait and worry for hours or days on end.

The first American chosen to go into space is Alan Sheppard, the jokester of the group (who never fails to bring his comic idol, Jose Jimenez, along for the ride). His trip will be sub-orbital and relatively short (15 minutes) in July, 1961, but it doesn't take away from his and America's official entry into the space race. The
Russians had already launched Yuri Gagarin in April of 1961 making him the first human to fly well above the Earth.

Meanwhile, far away from the media frenzy of the U.S. space program, the test pilots at Edwards are still secretly hard at work. Chuck Yeager sees the newest and fastest aircraft, the Lockheed F-104A Starfighter, in the Air Force arsenal on the flight line and asks his friend, Captain Jack Ridley (Levon Helm), if he's "got any Beemans"? That's the key phrase that means Yaeger's about to fly without authorization of course but the guys in the control tower figure it must be O. K. "It's Yeager." This plane's wings were so sharp and smooth that ground crews had to cover the wings with thick felt so the men wouldn't get cut. It's rated at Mach 1.7 and Yeager is about to "wring her out." He takes the plane out and pushes it to its absolute limits, to the edge of outer space as the engine stalls and runs out of fuel. Yeager is forced to eject as the plane plummets to earth and crashes. We see Ridley in the ambulance racing towards the plume of smoke as Yeager walks, burned and unaided, towards them. He thought the astronauts are extremely brave. He was a modest man and shunned the spotlight. The movie finally brought him to public attention.

The movie ends as Gordon Cooper is the last of the Mercury Astronauts to fly solo into space on May 15, 1963. Mercury is followed by the 2-man Gemini Program and then the 3-man Apollo Program. The audience is a witness to the enduring nature of the initial adventure into outer space and we realize that there are men (and later women like Sally Ride) who daily take risks for the advancement of knowledge, science and many other disciplines. When America makes up its mind to do something especially on a scale as large as the Space program it may take time but it doesn't stop until completed.

In 1983 there was a limited use of special effects but there were mock-ups of aircraft and space capsules along with real ones. But many of the planes were real and the flying sequences were too. Bill Conti, famous for his Rocky movie themes, penned the memorable score for The Right Stuff. In terms of technology the 30 years since this film's release have seen some amazing changes and inventions that have changed our lives forever. You may be reading my column on your I-Pad or I-Phone right now. Pretty amazing stuff, right?

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

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